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Under Siege (HD DVD)
To borrow a line from Simon and Garfunkel, "Where did you go, Steven Seagal?" While the nation never turned its lonely eyes to him, Seagal did manage to make a nice little career for himself in the late 80's/early 90's, making action fluff like Hard To Kill and Marked For Death. By far, his biggest commercial hit was 1992's Under Siege, and most consider it to be Seagal's best film. And while that not be saying much, I wouldn't disagree with the assessment.
Seagal plays Casey Ryback, en ex-Navy Seal who now works as a cook on the USS Missouri, which is celebrating the captain's birthday. The ship's second-in-command, Commander Krill (Garey Busey) has devised a series of surprise entertainments for the captain, including a band and an appearance from a former Playmate (Erika Eleniak). However, as the party gets underway, the band leader, William Stranix (Tommy Lee Jones), shoots the third-in-command in the head, and all the caterers pull out guns and herd the entire crew (except for Ryback, of course) into the hold, trapping them inside. Now it's up to Ryback to save the ship from Stranix and Krill, who happen to be in possession of several nuclear warheads.
Under Siege has aptly been described as "Die Hard on a boat," but there's one big difference: the lead. As John McClane, Bruce Willis portrayed a multi-dimensional hero, capable of pain as well as true bravery. Seagal's performance as Ryback is nowhere near as nuanced. While Seagal isn't the worst actor in the world, or even the world's worst action star, he's not exactly versatile. Most of the time he seems bemused and detached. He's more efficient than anything else. And while I know that Seals generally tend to be very emotionless, it doesn't make for a very interesting movie character. When Ryback has a phone conversation in the middle of a firefight, you know he's just not invested enough.
Luckily for the film, Seagal gets some help from his co-stars. Busey and Jones both ham it up for all they're worth, but in roles that reward such scenery chewing. The two are a formidable pair of villains, playing off each other for greater effect. While I wouldn't call the performances award-winning, they certainly do get your attention.
The film also benefits from director Andrew Davis, best known for his follow-up to Under Siege, a little movie known as The Fugitive. Davis knows the rhythm and flow of action movies and has it down to a science. He keeps the momentum going and makes sure that each sequence is well choreographed and covered for maximum effect. Without him, the film would have been much worse off.
And, of course, one can't help but mention Erika Eleniak's out-of-a-cake performance. In fact, she does a suitable job all the way through the film, going from stripper to spoiled brat to tough girl in a way that doesn't strain the bounds of reality too much. She certainly does better than her "Baywatch" pedigree might suggest.
Of course, the real reason we're here to see the movie (aside from Erika's mammaries, of course) is the action. And the film definitely has plenty, with helicopters exploding, battleship guns firing, and even a man's Adam's Apple being removed. There's almost no blood, which is odd, considering the film has an R rating, but with all the excitement, I didn't even notice until the film was almost over.
In the end, Under Siege is a fun action movie that manages to raise itself above the level of guilty pleasure, thanks to the work of Busey, Jones, and Davis.
The HD DVD:
Warner Bros. presents Under Siege in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p, using VC-1 encoding. While the film is by no means ancient, it's no spring chicken anymore, and it shows. It's clear Warner put no effort into cleaning up the master for this disc, as the movie is by no means pristine. That being said, the image does have its strengths. Almost every shot of the ship on the water is breathtaking. Brightly lit scenes are a clear improvement over the standard DVD, as well. Where the transfer really fails is in dark scenes and shadows. The image has little to no detail in the dark, which can be annoying as some sequences take place in darkened rooms, and you can't tell what Seagal is doing. Overall, though, I expected the disc to look worse than it does. There's no denying that this is a high def image.
We get a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 track on this release, and it too shows it age. This movie sounds dated, there's no getting around it. However, there are some good directional effects, especially during the interior gunfights, with good echoing and bullet ricochets. The various explosions also pack a punch. So the sound isn't all bad, it could just use a little work. Also included is a French 5.1 dub and a Spanish 2.0 track.
Get ready for...the theatrical trailer! It doesn't even look like it's in HD. Snore.
Under Siege has actually held up pretty well, especially for a Steven Seagal movie. Strong performances by the supporting cast and an above average director make this one more entertaining than most action dreck that comes along. The HD DVD however, has only average picture and sound, and lousy extras. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.